When Bad Things Happen

by Ali Massoud

“For centuries,” says Ellen Leventry, ”people have been asking, “Why, God, why?” when disaster strikes. And for centuries, religion has been trying to answer the question of how a loving or just God could allow humans to endure such suffering. While Western traditions strive to teach that God's power and goodness are, indeed, compatible with the suffering of innocents, many Eastern faiths view undeserved suffering as a result of a cosmic law of moral cause and effect.”

Both these explanations from theologians and the devout are truly unsatisfying to those suffering or seeking meaning from tragic events. I remember as a child when my gramps died and then a month later my gram too. Why God, did you take them from me?

My mother was a religious woman of the Christian faith and the Lutheran denomination. In an attempt to comfort and educate me, she took me along with her to a Bible Studies class offered at the neighborhood Lutheran center. I was being raised as a Muslim as per an agreement between her and my continually absent and apostate Muslim father when they married. He abandoned his faith, then his family for long periods of time, and his agreement on religious instruction for his children too. Mum never wavered in her commitment to see we were raised as Muslims as she promised to do, even when father reneged on his part of the bargain.

In the Bible studies class we used the Book of Job as a starting point. Job is prosperous and well positioned in life. And he gives praise to Yahweh, his God. Then Yahweh bet with Satan to thoroughly ruin Job and see if he still sings praises to Him then. And Job does.

Job refused to “curse God and die”. Job praised God and his gift of life when things were good, and didn’t blame him when his house burned, bandits stole his possessions, all of his children were killed, and painful boils covered his body. Job was devout in good circumstances and in bad.

The real lesson in the Book of Job isn’t “see how fickle God is,” or “it’ll all work out in the end,” or that there is a higher purpose or a “plan” that you just can’t see and wouldn’t understand anyway, on the part of God. I rejected all those explanations long ago.

The real lesson as I grok it to be, is that acceptance and courage are the only rational responses for the random fickleness of life in this world. God loves you = peace and prosperity, or God is angry at you = suffering to you as punishment, is not a rational formulation unless one is way gone into superstition and a belief in underlying mystical explanations for natural actions and phenomenon.

God didn’t cause the earthquake and tsunami that killed 150,000 people and did devastating damage to the coastal regions of the Indian Ocean. Shifting tectonic plates on the seafloor did.

Religious or mystical explanations may bring comfort to some and I am humble and tolerant enough (I hope), not to deride or mock those that are comforted by them. But the real reason for the damage was the lack of foresight on the part of the people and societies living in an area where huge earthquakes are a regular occurrence.

If God exists then it seems very likely to me that He would have no trouble at all making His existence, rules, and presence known to us. But instead there is only a profound silence. His Will such as it may be, is unknown and likely unknowable. For someone like myself who aspires to religious values without the religious dogma, acceptance of what is, and the genuine effort to bear and deal with life and its unfairness in a humane and rational manner is what brings me comfort and relief.

No amount of prayers, self-flagellation, or even human sacrifice will prevent natural disasters and their subsequent death, injury, and destruction and the suffering caused by them.

I like to think that the rational concept of God is much like my concept of my gramps, gram and mum: They instructed me in morality, wisdom, compassion, and gave me a road map for how to be a worthy and humane kind of person. Then they died and were gone. But their instruction and example still provide a path for me to follow, if I choose to. I see the concept of “God” in the modern and rational sense the same way.

The path for understanding and acceptance is already there if we would but follow it. Mum, gramps, gram, and “God” are gone now. But their wisdom, advice, and examples remain with us as a torch to guide us through our lives and whatever fate or circumstances will come our way.

“Why do bad things happen?” isn’t a question that can be answered. How can we act in a rational, kind, and humane way that would make mum, gramps, gram, and God proud of us, is.

 published at Endervidualism on  January 21, 2005

Ali Massoud is a father, political theorist, apostate Muslim, small business owner, college graduate, crack rifle marksman, a blogger, cat lover, shrewd investor, US Army veteran, and currently single. He lives in Michigan.